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Arc Weld

“Language is a virus from outer space”
—William S. Borroughs




Chest-thump to start off the year: Last year’s “ZeroS”, appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Wars, made it into a couple of Year’s Best collections: Neil Clarke’s Best Science Fiction of the Year (Vol. 3), and another one I hesitate to name because I don’t actually see it announced anywhere else just yet. So that’s cool.


But this is way cooler:

There’s this gene, Arc, active in our neurons. It’s essential for cognition and longterm memory in mammals; knockout mice who lack it can’t remember from one day to the next where they left the cheese. It looks and acts an awful lot like something called a gag— a “group-specific antigen”, something which codes for the core structural proteins of retroviruses. Like a gag, Arc codes for a protein that assembles into  capsids (basically, shuttles containing messenger RNA). These accumulate in the dendrites, cross the synaptic junction in little vesicles: a payload from one neuron to another.

Pastuzyn et al, of the University of Utah, have just shown that Arc is literally an infection: a tamed, repurposed virus that infected us a few hundred million years ago. Apparently it looks an awful lot like HIV. Pastuzyn et al speculate that Arc “may mediate intercellular signaling to control synaptic function”.

Memory is a virus. Or at least, memory depends on one.



Of course, everyone’s all over this. U of Utah trumpeted the accomplishment with a press release notable for, among other things, describing the most-junior contributor to this 13-author paper as the “senior” author. Newsweek picked up both the torch and the mistake, leading me to wonder if Kastalio Medrano is simply at the sloppy end of the scale or if it’s normal for “Science Writers” in popular magazines to not bother reading the paper they’re reporting on. (I mean, seriously, guys; the author list is right there under the title.) As far as I know I’m the first to quote Burroughs in this context (or to mention that Greg Bear played around a very similar premise in Darwin’s Radio), but when your work gets noticed by The Atlantic you know you’ve arrived.

Me, though, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that something which was once an infection is now such an integral part of our cognitive architecture. I can’t stop wondering what would happen if someone decided to reweaponise it.

The parts are still there, after all.  Arc builds its own capsid, loads it up with genetic material, hops from one cell to another. The genes being transported don’t even have to come from Arc:

“If viral RNA is not present, Gag encapsulates host RNA, and any single-stranded nucleic acid longer than 20-­30 nt can support capsid assembly … indicating a general propensity to bind abundant RNA.”

The delivery platform’s intact; indeed, the delivery platform is just as essential to its good role as it once was to its evil one. So what happens if you add a payload to that platform that, I dunno, fries intraneuronal machinery somehow?

I’ll tell you. You get a disease that spreads through the very act of thinking. The more you think, the more memories you lay down, the more the disease ravages you. The only way to slow its spread is to think as little as possible; the only way to save your intelligence is not to use it. Your only chance is to become willfully stupid.

Call it Ignorance is Bliss. Call it Donald’s Syndrome. Even call it a metaphor of some kind.

Me, I’m calling it a promising premise. The only real question is whether I’ll squander it now on a short story, or save it up for a few years and stick it into Omniscience.


(Thanks to Bahumat, btw, for showing me the link.)

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